Spices are an important factor in healthy cooking, since they have the power to add abundant flavor without adding calories. Widen your spice-cabinet horizons this week with the unique flavor of star anise. This spice’s shape emulates a star with 5-10 pointed tips radiating from a central seed pod. Rust colored with a tough texture, star anise comes from an aromatic evergreen tree. It can be purchased whole or ground and its licorice-like taste is similar to (but more pungent than) its anise cousin.
In alternative medicine, star anise has been prescribed as a digestive aid and has been used to ease colic in babies. For years it has flavored medicinal teas, but more recently has been used as an ingredient in Tamiflu, an antiviral drug used to fend off the avian flu.
Purchasing, Storage, and Preparation
Look for star anise at specialty supermarkets. I like to buy it whole, because it lasts longer than the pre-ground seeds. Stored in a dark, sealed container, pods will save for several months before the flavor fades. To grind your own seeds, you can use a mortar and pestle, an electric grinder, or even a (thoroughly cleaned) coffee grinder will work.
Popular in Asian cuisine, it is one of the quintessential components of Chinese Five Spice. In Vietnamese food it fuses the flavors of the simmered soup, Pho. And in American cuisine, emphasize itscitrus-y sweetness by accenting vegetables like sweet potatoes, squash, and fennel. Try star anise for yourself in your summertime meat rubs and homemade barbecue sauce; or pair it with cinnamon, chocolate, or fruit preserves to create decadent desserts.